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Much more than just learning to sail

November 18, 2018

Alone on the waves in a small boat, a sailor has to be self-reliant, skillful, calculating — and knowledgeable yet humble about water and wind. The experience can be exhilarating.

Traditionally, learning seamanship skills and having fun afloat was for children whose families could afford boats and lessons. That left many kids high and dry, even though they live in Connecticut, a state bordered by and brimming with salt and fresh waters. Often, those same children lack other opportunities, too, to reinforce the math and science learned in a classroom, or to see themselves as teammates and leaders.

A young sailor under the guidance of NESS, New England Science & Sailing Foundation can be any combination of big or small, athletic or awkward, girl or boy, A-student or not, brown, black, white, spry or physically or developmentally challenged. Family income is no barrier. Exhilaration is open to all.

Founded upon a principle of inclusiveness and the brilliant notion that the children of Connecticut should be personally familar with the state’s waters, NESS has just enhanced its educational reputation with formal accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). The accreditation recognizes that NESS’s experiential approach to teaching science, math, personal growth and stewardship constitutes a true educational partner with the classroom instruction mandated by Next Generation Science Standards.

It speaks to the insight of NEASC that it would consider accrediting a non-profit educational program that partners with schools and then, after rigorous self-study and a visit from the official evaluators, grant a status normally reserved for bricks-and-mortar institutions. And it speaks to the determination of NESS leadership to spread its STEM programs, already serving 9,000 students a year, by seeking and earning the stamp of approval.

We hope it also means that NEASC will be open to giving official review and possible accreditation to other school partners, whose capacity to supplement classroom instruction could be an important aid for beleaguered educational systems. This step should also assure cash-strapped school boards that they can consider adding proven, high-quality supplemental programs in any subject area. Outdoor, hands-on activities can help build enthusiasm from both teachers and students in a learning climate focused on testing and Common Core requirements.

In the words of Spike Lobdell, president, CEO and founder of NESS 17 years ago in Stonington, “the lights go on in the classroom” when students come back from a morning on the water or spend an hour calculating whether fish eat more in cold or warm water. When you are genuinely curious about fishy appetites, you will collect the data and do the math.

The NESS program currently serves about 60 schools and organizations in Connecticut and several in Westerly and Longmeadow, Mass., with a particularly strong presence in five New London schools staffed by Americorps volunteers. Programs begin in kindergarten and continue though middle school. The best results, unsurprisingly, come when there is a great relationship with the teacher.

Teachers and principals deserve credit for being open to such partnerships. Connecticut schools need solutions for low test scores, career education demands, graduation rates, absenteeism and a lack of readiness to learn. While it’s too early to gauge the ultimate result on standardized test scores, NESS is collecting parent opinions and anecdotal evidence, like the examples of a former NESS student who is now a student in a maritime college and others qualifying to work as ferry crew members. NEASC found that NESS “demonstrates the strength  — and singular importance — of its mission” by making a difference in the lives of young people.

Congratulations to NESS on its accreditation, but even more to the students for whom it is much more than just learning to sail.

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